Tag Archives: Palaeography

Rembrandt’s private and legal life

Bannere exhibition "Rembrandt Privé"

On December 7, 2018 the exhibition Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately] opened at the city archives of Amsterdam. In an earlier post on my blog I mentioned the project RemDoc – Rembrandt Documentation which offers a searchable database with images, transcriptions and many English translations of seventeenth-century documents pertaining to Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). The exhibit show documents held at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, the largest municipal archive in the Netherlands, some original works by Rembrandt, a number of maps and the chance to gain access to augmented reality around the documents using a tablet. The legal nature of many documents will soon become clear in this post.

Stories of love, art and money

I started to admire Rembrandt already as a child. His paintings, drawings and etchings are so much alive with people. Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age helped shaping my perceptions of the seventeenth century. I was soon aware of the many decisive turns in Rembrandt’s life. The way he portrayed people both in sorrow and joy, and the dark hours of his own life offered a healthy antidote to viewing the Dutch Republic in too much sunlight. The catalogue of the major Rembrandt exposition in Amsterdam in 1969 was a book I have seen many times. It often referred to historical documents about Rembrandt and his works.

The building of the Stadsarcheif Amsterdam

The Stadsarchief Amsterdam at the Vijzelstraat in the former bank building designed by K.P.C. de Bazel

Reading about somebody in a book is one thing, seeing the works of an artist in museums adds much to it, but somehow having the documents in front of you stirs the imagination even more. The Rembrandt Documentation project of the Huygens Institute in Amsterdam and the Radboud University Nijmegen gives you online access to many thousand documents. There was an older work, Die Urkunden über Rembrandt (1575-1721) by C. Hofstede de Groot (The Hague 1906; online, Universität Heidelberg) with transcriptions and commentaries for nearly 500 documents, followed by W.L. Strauss and M. van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York 1979) and M. Roscam Abbing, Rembrandt 2006, II: New Rembrandt Documents (Leiden 2006). The online project has a wider time range, 1424 to 1799, and offers much more documents, and also references about Rembrandt in art literature. Sometimes Hofstede de Groot did not record texts completely. Commentaries can be very different and convincing explanations no longer missing. An example: Hofstede de Groot gave a large extract from an attestatio de vita from July 26, 1632 (no. 25, p. 24-25; RemDoc, no. 4399) made by a notary inquiring about Rembrandt’s health, but the reason for this inquiry was not clear to Hofstede de Groot. In 1979 it became clear it had to do with a rent subscribed to by one hundred citizens with the stipulation the full sum would be paid back to the longest living subscriber.

An enlarged map of Amsterdam and two documents

The exhibit at the city archive shows a selection of documents around a number of themes and events in Rembrandt’s life. Often two documents are shown, with either a print next to them or an image of a painting in the background, most of them from the collections of the Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandthuis. With the tablet you can focus on a document and start a short podcast about the document or documents. Often you will see a seventeenth-century map in the background showing you the exact location in the inner city of Amsterdam. The image to the left centers on a document about the execution of Elsje Christiaens, a Danish servant convicted for murder hanging at the display gallows in 1664 on the other side of the IJ, the estuary to the north of Amsterdam. Rembrandt often made sketches in this region. He drawed this young woman twice.

The exhibition shows some familiar documents, and although I had already some expectations, the legal nature of many documents is indeed striking. To mention just a few of them, the betrothal of Rembrandt and his first wife Saskia van Uijlenburgh in 1634, an ecclesiastical procedure about his later mistress Geertje, some testaments, the inventory of his bankruptcy in 1656, and the inventory of his house after his death in 1669 are all legal documents.

The 1669 inventory - Amsterdam, Stadsarchief

A page from the 1669 inventory – Amsterdam, Stadsarchief, Archief Notarissen, subseries 113, Gerrit Steeman, inv.no. 2625C

The death-bed inventory of Rembrandt’s house in 1669 is rather special. It belongs to documents more or less damaged by the 1762 fire in the city hall. Several documents have now been restored and digitized. Until now the transcriptions of this document in RemDoc (no. 13471; Hofstede de Groot, no. 306) could only be incomplete. It is a reminder that a historical state of affairs can change indeed. Illegible or missing words can become clear. In the case mentioned above a document which seemed inexplicable can be studied anew, placed in a context and yield new information. The readability of old Dutch documents was the theme in a post I wrote earlier in 2018. I proposed to everyone wanting to learn online to decipher Dutch documents from the seventeenth century to start with the documents about Rembrandt. As an example I showed an image of an obligation Rembrandt had got into for the purchase in 1639 of his house in the Sint Anthoniebreesteeg for which he had failed in 1653 to pay four years of interest (RemDoc no. 4628). Even if not for all documents images and an English translation is available, a fair number of archival records can be used to gain also palaeographical skills.

Among the archival records on display I want to single out two documents. The first is a complaint from the Portuguese merchant Diego d’Andrada in 1654 about a portrait of a young lady Rembrandt had made for him (RemDoc, no. 1661) with clauses about the way Rembrandt was going to act to fulfill the wishes in accordance with the regulations of the painters guild.

Documents about the black community in Rembrandt's Amsterdam

The second document involved also the presence of Portuguese merchants in Amsterdam, the burial of Francisco d’Angola in 1659 who had lived in the same street with Selijelij Krablije. Rembrandt could meet in the very street where he lived black people who lived as servants in the houses of Portuguese merchants. In Amsterdam it was forbidden to have slaves, but one can assume in some cases such servants were in fact slaves. Amsterdam had become in the seventeenth century one of Europe’s most important financial and trade centers. You might encounter anyone and anything, and thus Rembrandt’s world stretched far beyond Holland.

More archival records

The Stadsarchief Amsterdam is rightly famous for its digitization service. Some 30 million images of archival records are currently available online. Indexes exist for a steadily growing number of record series, and in most cases they lead you to digital images, too. The ondertrouwregisters (betrothal registers) are probably the most praised record series of the municipal archive, because uniquely for this kind of resource the Amsterdam records often contain additional information about the partners, their professions, origin and family.

Logo Alle Amsterdamse Akten

In 1906 Hofstede de Groot noted in the acknowledgements he had not used himself the notarial registers of Amsterdam, because this rich resource had not yet been adequately inventoried. He had mostly to rely on the transcriptions and editions of the people who had gained access to them thanks to the guidance of archivists. It is one thing to have now at your computer screen full access to digitized images of these registers using the finding aid (toegang 5075), but another thing to find quickly relevant acts. Here the crowdsourcing project Alle Amsterdamse Akten steps in which aims to digitize and create indexes for a staggering volume of notarial registers, good for 3,5 linear kilometer in 700 cupboards. The project overview gives a current number of nearly six million digitized pages, some 680 volunteers at the Dutch transcribing platform Vele Handen [Many Hands] and 267,000 documents. There are more than ten thousand registers from 731 notaries in the Early Modern period. The website contains special dossiers about six themes, among them Rembrandt and also slavery with highlights among the notarial acts, some of them newly found, others already known.

Search screen Alle Amsterdamse Akten

The search screen of Alle Amsterdamse Akten

After free registration you can start searching in the notarial registers from Amsterdam at the website Notarieel Archief Amsterdam. You can search for descriptions, type of act, first names and surnames for two persons, location, day, month and year, or choose a particular notary. When searching for Rembrandt van Rhijn you will immediately get a choice of variant spellings in a dropdown menu, both for Rembran(d)(t) and R(h)ijn. At this point I can no longer hide the fact that the exhibit can be visited in a Dutch and English version, but the other websites of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam are completely in Dutch. The press kit for the exhibit in four languages and the display texts for the documents are the exceptions, but the tablet scripts and transcriptions are only available online in Dutch. There is a strong case to add at least a search interface in one other language. It is some solace to be able to download the 1998 repertory of notaries in Amsterdam between 1524 and 1810 by A.J. Bosma. Earlier on an overview had been created of more than 5000 notarial acts in cases of gross avery between 1700 and 1810, damage to ships in emergency situations, an important resource next to an index on these cases of maritime law heard by a special court. I wrote a paragraph about these verdicts in an earlier post.

Rembrandt and Vermeer in documents

It seems wise to see Rembrandt not in isolation. John Michael Montias (1928-2005) was an economic historian who became an art historian focusing on the social context of art. He found and transcribed lots of Early Modern probate inventories mentioning works of art which can be searched in the Montias database of the Frick Museum, New York. The Meertens Institute for Dutch Ethnology has created the Boedelbank, a database with Dutch probate inventories from four regions seen as a resource for the history of material culture. In 1989 Montias published Vermeer and his milieu. A web of social history, translated into Dutch as Vermeer en zijn milieu (Amsterdam 1993). Over the years Montias had traced some 450 documents in seventeen Dutch and Belgian archives – not only in Delft! – with direct and indirect about information about Vermeer, his family and people associated with him. The Dutch edition contains as an appendix (pp. 331-403) an enlarged version of the list of documents with a number of full transcriptions. The number of documents for Vermeer is definitely lower than for Rembrandt. Even if such documents do not allow for strict conclusions about the content of his art works, they enormously raise the awareness about the multiple contexts of Dutch art in the seventeenth century.

In the face of an ocean of specialized art literature about Rembrandt and Vermeer the point I liked to make here is not only the legal nature of many archival records in the Amsterdam exhibition, but also the presence of many other persons in these documents. Rembrandt and Vermeer were supreme masters in portraying people who you seem to know and understand in an uncanny way. The Dutch historian Geert Mak wrote a book about the Six family [De levens van Jan Six. Een familiegeschiedenis, 2016; The many lives of Jan Six. A portrait of an Amsterdam dynasty, 2017], a merchant dynasty with Jan Six at its very heart, a friend of Rembrandt, portrayed twice by him. The painting is still owned by his descendants. Viewing someone in his familiar surroundings or in the streets of his hometown is also a metaphor for viewing law not as an isolated element of society, but vitally connected to its utmost veins. Finding and recreating such connections is surely challenging, but searching for a subject in vivo is more rewarding and revealing than staying content with results in a supposedly detached laboratory. At the end of 2018 I would almost say: Keep calm and study legal history!

Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately] – Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Vijzelstraat 32, Amsterdam – December 7, 2018 until April 7, 2019

Deciphering letters about slavery and abolition

Start screen Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

Easy access has become a byword not only for creating online versions of sources, but also for transcribing important source collections as part of efforts to bring them literally better into view for both scholars and the general public. The participants of transcribing and indexing projects certainly stand out from the crowd. Recently Boston Public Library partnered with the Zooniverse crowdsourcing program for a project concerning nineteenth-century letters about abolition and slavery. The Anti-Slavery Manuscripts was launched on January 23, 2018. The collection contains some 40,000 pieces from the 1830’s to the late 1860’s, after the Civil War, with at its heart documents and letters donated by the family of William Lloyd Garrison. Some 12,000 items in the collection have been digitized at Digital Commonwealth, the digital platform for cultural heritage collections in Massachusetts. Nearly 2,200 images have been selected for the first phase of this project. One of the themes in this collection is the role of women in the struggle for abolition. Deciphering these resources can at times be difficult, and it seems right to look here also at palaeography in the United States.

In my discussion of the project for these manucsripts I will look also at other crowdsourcing transcription projects. My search for American palaeography was not as straightforward as you might expect.

A community around abolition

At the start I want to stress the fact this project of Boston Public Library and Zooniverse runs smoothly. Almost four thousand volunteers have registered to transcribe letters, and the progress is good. You can follow the project on a special blog of the Boston Public Library. Besides the letters in the collection there are also pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, books and realia. If the letters show us a more intimate side of the abolitionist movement, the newspaper The Liberator (1831-1866) founded by William Lloyd Garrison might aptly be named the motor and public actor of the movement. Interestingly, in her blog post about the history of The LIberator Kelsey Gustin draws attention to the changes in the masthead of this weekly published newspaper. These images depict not only black and white people, but also use art to convey at least a part of the inspiration behind the movement.

Only issues for the years 1831-1842 and 1861-1862 of The Liberator have been digitized at Digital Commonwealth. You can find information about more complete versions of this Boston newspaper in licensed digital collections in the online database of the International Coalition On Newspapers (ICON), hosted by the Center for Research Libraries, Chicago. There are complete digitized runs in open access at Fair Use and The Liberator Files.

The collection at Boston Public Library contains materials from several abolitionist societies, among them the Female Anti-Slavery Society. Unity about opposition to slavery did not take away the very issue of the participation of women and women’s rights in general, and thus these matters, too, appear in the letters. The correspondence preserved here came from both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Transcribing the letters

Work screen of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

Work screen of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

The 12,000 letters to be transcribed will be released in five sets, mostly in chronological order. There is a rather important blog post by Samantha Blickhan (IMLS) on the divisions of the fivesets and decisions to exclude a number of letters. Some of them have already been published in critical editions, in particular those of William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner. In one case, the Ziba B. Oakes Papers, bring a series of letters by a slave trader. The first set now visible contains the oldest letters from 1800 to 1839.

You have to register in order to participate in the project, but anyway when you click on Transcribe in the menu bar you will view the tutorial explaining the way you enter your results. On the right there is a toolbar for navigation. In the top left corner you can enlarge or scale down the image, or go to other pages of a document. The Field Guide gives practical guidance to decipher letter forms and other elements of writing, and instructions to present such elements consistently and correctly in your transcription. After finishing a piece or when you have questions you might want to visit the forum at Talk for news, frequently asked questions, and for discussions about matters presented by the participants. Zooniverse Team member @GrifftinTranscribes answers questions as a specialist in nineteenth-century handwriting.

Screen shot Field Guide

When you notice you can open the Tutorial whenever you click on Transcribe in the menu bar or using the button to the left of the images, you would expect the same navigation for the Field Guide. In fact both elements become visible as pop-up-only screens. I was not able to detect their exact web addresses.Screenshot explanation on abbreviations

The Field Guide deals with fourteen subjects. The team behind the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts takes no risks and instructs participants explicitly to leave abbreviations as they are found in the letters. For further information they point to a web page of the National Archives and Records Administration for their projects under its Citizen Archivists umbrella. However helpful in many ways, this page does not contain every element of a full-grown palaeographical manual. When you visit the History Hub, a support community concerning American history managed by the NARA, you will encounter in the user forums a lot of very useful communities, including one for legislative records, but on this platform questions about handwriting have not yet been given a corner of its own.

An endearing and lively blog post about the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts has been written by Lisa Gilbert, an instructor who reports on the experience of 8th graders (13 tot 14 years old) who tried to read a letter from the collection in Boston. Line after line they struggled to understand the text. The struggle helped the teenagers to get an idea of what it meant to fight for abolition or for any political idea. Awareness of the fact how many questions you can ask from a single document was another thing becoming clear.

The uses of palaeography

If historians had read documents exclusively by fighting their way through original documents, instead of learning how to deal with all kind of scripts, not just from one century or in a single document genre, little could have been accomplished. The study of old scripts and their context is one of the earliest historical auxiliary sciences. Manuals and guides, including classic books on forms of abbreviations, exist in fair numbers. Since February 2017 I have tried to find online tutorials for palaeography and to create a commented overview of them on my legal history website Rechtshistorie. Sometimes it took quite an effort to find a tutorial or at least a digital version of a recent guide, in other cases it was almost a question of choosing the best. One of the things I spotted was a division in the United States and the United Kingdom between manuals aiming at reading genealogical records, and tutorials dealing with other historical records. The United Kingdom is well served with a large number of tutorials for dealing with either manuscripts or archival records, with also at least three websites for Scottish resources, but there seem to be few online tutorials for American palaeography.

You will find sources in American history written in many languages, and certainly not only European. For Southern states you must reckon with Spanish and French resources. The difficulty to read Dutch script from the Early Modern period in archival sources concerning New York has been the subject here of a post in 2015 about the transcriptions and editions of these invaluable materials. For the history of Pennsylvania sources written in German are important. It can be most useful to rely on palaeographical guidance for Early Modern records in these languages, even when they deal more specifically with records written or still held in Spain, France, Germany or the Low Countries. It can be wise to look at resources for Canada, too, but in fact my harvest for Canada is until now distinctly meagre.

Let’s look at these online resources aiming specifically at the United States and Canada. For Canadian history I have not yet found a resource which deserves to be recognized as a tutorial. The only resource I found for Canada after repeated searches is a contribution by Leah Grandy for Early Canadiana, aptly called ‘Skills for historians of the future: palaeography’, and her two posts on palaeography (here the second) at the blog of The Loyalist Collection, University of New Brunswick. There is a Study Guide Colonial Handwriting, created in connection with the Indian Converts Digital Collection, Reed College, Portland, Oregon. The study guide accompanies a digitized version of a 1727 book on Indian converts. You can test your knowledge of Early Modern handwriting with an online tool of Reed College, Early American Handwriting. DoHistory has created How to read 18th century British handwriting, a companion to Martha Ballard’s diary for the years 1785-1812 [Augusta, ME, Maine State Library, ms. B B 189]. The State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh have published three consecutive blog posts, What Does That Say? Deciphering the handwritten records of Early America. The posts present colonial documents. They provide also a bibliography and links to digitized works. Perhaps the most surprising tutorial comes from the Smithsonian Institution. Reading Colonial Handwriting is part of the section Just for Kids! of the virtual exhibition Out of the mails created by the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Two of the manuals mentioned in this paragraph deal only with eighteenth-century documents. To say the least, American history covers by all means a much longer period.

The need for an online tutorial for American palaeography was the subject of a short blog post by Ricc Ferrante on the blog of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, ‘Is there a place for palaeography in the archives?’ (January 23, 2018), incidentally also the day the Boston Public Library launched its project. The Smithsonian Institution Archives deal with the history of this research organization with many branches. The SI Archives support also the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers and its transcription center. It provides general tips for transcribing, and also more specific instructions for transcribing historical documents, and eight other sets of guidelines, for example for transcribing the papers of the Freedmen’s Bureau which dealt with abandoned properties after 1865 in the aftermath of the Civil War. Just as the NARA for Citizen Archivists the Smithsonian Institution provides substantial transcription guidance. Explaining such rules is definitely important, but they do not substitute palaeographical guidance.

Ferrante did not find quickly an online palaeographical manual for American documents, and thus he choose some of the websites mentioned in the fine overview in the Folgerpedia of online resources for English palaeography. The quality of this overview is excellent, but it can suggest no online tutorials for American handwriting exist. Ferrante started his search for an online manual when he tried to read a handwritten journal from the mid-1840’s. He signals also the difficulty to read old cursive scripts for those who have not received any instruction in cursive writing, and he hesitantly admits a place for palaeography for historical periods after the Middle Ages.

The development of palaeography as an auxiliary historical science started mainly for dealing with medieval documents and manuscripts, but it widened its territory soon. Historians can choose to study only printed – or typed – resources, especially for modern history. However, we know how important it is to use letters and diaries, drawings, poems and daily notes – scribbled or in capitals – from the Civil War, First World War, the Depression Era, the New Deal or the Second World War.  These sources help to give us vivid details in order to understand these periods better or to raise questions about our understanding and views. In official records, too, we can encounter handwritten elements. In my training as a historian following courses in palaeography was optional. I still remember the collective sigh of satisfaction after our first lessons, because getting the skills to read original documents felt immensely practical.

The absence of online tutorials covering several periods of American history does not mean nothing can be done. In particular the series Script Tutorials of the Brigham Young University helps you reading texts in seven languages, but the focus is clearly on genealogical records. However, at some point you will want to consult other resources genres, too. Tax registers and military records contain valuable information about your ancestors, and it would be a pity if you are unable to read them by lack of some necessary skills which can be taught and learned without too much effort. Apart from universities archives often offer courses.

Zooniverse has several projects concerning or touching American history, for example on African-American Civil War soldiers, and The American Soldier about the aftermath of the Second World War. Projects on the League of Nations in the digital age and concerning coded information during the Civil War are currently paused. For these telegrams you can benefit from a blog post with the title ‘Now I Know My (19th-Century) ABCs’ by Mario Einaudi (Huntington Library). Of course other crowd transcription projects exist. A cursory look at the overview of such projects provided by the American Historical Association should suffice you of their widespread occurrence.

I could find little about palaeography on the website of the AHA and the Society of American Archivists (SAA). The useful and concise AHA Guide to Archival Research has a short paragraph about the need for palaeographical skills, with some lines worth quoting: “Get ready to read script. Do not be surprised when 15th-century documents are not typed”. This piece of advice is found typically in the section on research abroad, but you will read older scripts already when dealing with the colonial period. The fact this guide is also downloadable with the title Research Trip Tips is telling. Skills and competence in dealing with unfamiliar scripts is only implicitly reckoned among the capability to interpret historical records in the 2005 AHA report about essential skills for the MA in history degree. The SAA certainly brings into view the variety of skills archivists do need today.

When you search at the website of the SAA and in The American Archivist (AA) you will find palaeography in many cases associated with medieval and European sources, but you might want to read articles such as Laetitia Yeandle, ‘The evolution of American handwriting in the English-speaking colonies’, AA 43 (1980) 294-311, and Alfred E. Lemmon, ‘The archival legacy of Spanish Louisiana colonial records’, AA 55 (1992) 142-155. Laura Schmidt’s fine guide Using Archives: A guide to effective research – also downloadable (PDF) – mentions reading skills in particular in a paragraph about scheduling time for the unexpected. Sometimes my memory comes back of a visit to an archive more than thirty years ago where I found myself dumbfounded by a document in front of me. I was unable to even start an attempt to decipher it. Online tutorials and many digital collections with archival records can provide you with the same shock which should make you think and reconsider your abilities.

In 2016 The Junto: A group blog on Early American History, an initiative of young historians, brought Archives around the Atlantic, a series of contributions on doing research in archives and libraries in Spain, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Reading skills figure in some of the posts, but seldom as a central or essential skill. The Dutch period of the East Coast has been completely overlooked in this series. Sometimes there is a hint to use the library of an archive to consult relevant literature and manuals. I would agree in principle that you should acquire knowledge of the nation’s palaeography you will encounter probably most times in your particular field of Early American history, but there will be moments when you have to cross linguistic and palaeographical borders. Some areas changed from Spanish into French possession. For Canada you will need both French and English palaeography.

American palaeography, a distinct field

In this post we made a journey from a very particular subject, sources concerning the abolition movement, to sources for American history more generally. Perhaps trained historians are those who generally will less often need online tutorials in their professional life, but others do not benefit from their head start. Relying solely on palaeography from one country ignores the fact migrants to the United States came from many countries, and not only in those states known during the first half of the nineteenth century as The Territories. If people increasingly do not any longer learn cursive writing, any form of training to read cursive scripts becomes necessary. It is paradoxical to create exhaustive transcription guides to ensure enhanced fidelity for editions, and at the same time to assume everything is readable without preparation or instructions. The need for a distinct palaeographical approach of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will steadily grow.

In my opinion Zooniverse is in the position to help creating rather quickly a basic palaeographical manual for American history using both the Field Guide of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts and the blog post of Mario Einaudi created for Decoding the Civil War. If they consider themselves unable to achieve this, a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s transcription center is one of the logical directions to take. Surely one or more a state archives, university libraries or major research libraries such as the BPL, the Newberry Library in Chicago or the Huntington Library are capable of combining forces to create it, and perhaps add materials for advanced needs. It will help not only the volunteers in transcription projects, but anyone interested in American history and able to view the massive digital collections with images of American handwritten documents. Of course there are classic printed guides such as Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American handwriting (Baltimore, MD, 1998) and Harriet Stryker-Rodda, Understanding colonial handwriting (Baltimore, MD, 1986), but there is room for online manuals, too.

Doing history calls for many skills. When you cannot readily start deciphering written records because you do not have reading skills, you are unable to interpret them and use them in your research. Others might help you to read archival records in some cases, but not always. Palaeographical skills can be decisive for the success of your visit to a local archive or to an archive which you can only reach after a voyage. Let reading skills accompany your historical voyages, be they virtual travels at your computer screen, reading books with images of written documents and manuscripts or visiting archives to use historical records!

Suriname’s slavery registers unbound

Start screen slavery regisyers, Nationaal Archief, Suriname

On July 1, 1863 slavery was officially abolished in Suriname. A ten-year transitional period followed during which former slave owners received a monetary compensation for each former slave. Since many years people originally coming from Suriname celebrate in The Netherlands on July 1 the feast of Keti Koti, “The Breaking of the Chains”. It is only fitting that last week the digital version of slave registers kept between 1830 and 1863, now hold by the Nationaal Archief of Suriname (NAS) in Paramaribo, was launched by a number of institutions led by Coen van Galen at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and Maurits Hassankhan at the Anton de Kom Universiteit van Suriname, with support from the Dutch National Archives in The Hague.

Last year I reported here on the project to move a number of archival collections concerning the history of Suriname from the Dutch Nationaal Archief to the NAS, and to digitize also a number of these collections. Collections with relevancy to legal history figure large among them. The digitization of the slavery registers is a key element completing the efforts for digital access and conservation, indexing the registers and making them much more accessible for researchers and the general public worldwide. In this post I will look at these registers and their online presence.

A crowdsourcing project

Logo crowdsourcing project "Maak de Surinaamse slavenregisters openbaar"In January 2017 the project for indexation and digitization of these slavery registers started, just after the transfer of important archival collections from The Hague to Paramaribo. A campaign with the slogan Maak de Surinaamse slavenregister openbaar, “Make the Surinam slavery registers public”, proved effective. Some 600 people donated money for the project, and some 400 volunteers helped indexing the registers. To put the record straight, anyone could and can come to these archives to gain access to the original volumes, provided their material state is not too fragile. It is safe to assume that you need to come with good arguments to touch them now they can be consulted online. The Dutch National Archives did already provide public access. The operation to bring archival collections back to Suriname created a more urgent need for conservation and digitization.

The digitized registers now in Paramaribo [NAS, toegang (finding aid) 16, inv.nrs. 1-43] can be accessed using an index form shown above. On purpose the NAS has not placed these registers among its forty digitized archival collections. The Dutch National Archives provide also online access to the slavery registers among its ever-growing set of online indexes. You can download the index in its entirety (4,2 MB, zipped file). At this point something becomes clear when you look at the URL of this file, a web address in The Netherlands at the search portal Ga het NA of the Nationaal Archief in The Hague. The search form of this digital resource at both archives is almost, but not completely identical.

Accessing the slavery registers

Logo Dutch Nationaal Archief, The Hague

You can use either a simple search form (Eenvoudig zoeken) with three fields, one for a free text search and two fields for setting a period, or go to Uitgebreid (Advanced search) with more fields. In the second mode there are additional fields from the slave name, the name of the mother, and the name of the slave owner. You can click on the search results in order to get both the information on a person, including also gender, references to the registers and the type of register – with its inventory and page number – and an image of the page in question. It is possible to zoom in at will to any image. Each scan has an individual URL, a URL from my country when viewing individual results, meaning there is one single database behind the two versions. By clicking on the field name in the results you can change their order. You will find either the names of owners or the name of the plantation and its location.

NAS, series 16, no. 34, fol. 2667

It is not my purpose to single out here any defects and omissions, but a few things are very visible. First of all the version hosted in The Hague contains additional information which is not or not yet provided at the website of the NAS. The section Achtergrond (Background) informs you about the information given in the search fields, with a second page about slavery in Suriname and the introduction of slavery registers and their survival. There are important losses, not in the least some registers of slaves owned by the Dutch colonial government. In the registers mutations such as birth and death, acquisitions and sales should be written down. A third page on Gebruik (Use) contains instruction on the use of the indexes and the interpretation of results, and also a handy list of common abbreviations in the registers. The other pages contain a colophon about the project and the user license (CC-BY-SA 3.0 NL).

A second thing to note is the incomplete translations in the English version of the search form. Even the simple search form has not yet been translated completely. The field names in the results screen have not been translated. A much sillier thing becomes also visible: In cases where there is no gender information, the volunteers entered the word Leeg (Empty). I suppose there are more concise and effective ways to convey the fact that no data have been entered in a particular field.

Viewing the context

Using to a large extent at this moment only Dutch for this project is not a particular lucky thing, and you can even extend this to the project website. Translations in languages such as English and Sranantongo are not just welcome, they are simply needed to really open this resource to people worldwide with interest in Caribbean history, the history of slavery or Dutch colonial history. For any project on Dutch colonial history in the East Indies contemplating translations into English and/or Bahasa Indonesia is luckily a natural thing. The project team states flatly these registers are a worldwide unique resource, the only series of its kind. On the project website some further, rather important explanations about the actual state of the slavery registers are offered. It appears no general index to the series existed. Some registers could be consulted on microfiches, but without one or more indexes searching would mean wandering in a jungle without much hope for any results. The thing to note here is that only in 2017 the need for an index was perceived as sufficiently urgent to start a project to deal with this sorry situation. Earlier on having only severely hampered access seems not to have led to constructive action. Van Galen and Hassankhan rightly stress the importance of the slavery registers for not only genealogical research, but as a key resource to connect with the manumission registers, neighbourhood registers of the city Paramaribo and other sources for Suriname’s history during the nineteenth century. The historic context and the slavery registers can enrich the information contained in them in both directions.

Surely we need to thank Coen van Galen and Maurits Hassankhan and the army of volunteers who succeeded in getting their tasks completed in time. Van Galen and Hassankhan provide on the project website a very useful page with four PDF’s with information that should immediately be included on the websites of  both versions of the online index. The project leaders provide a list with the names of plantations and other Dutch posts in 1834 (530 kB), a list with the names of free people in Paramaribo in 1846 (2,2 MB), both created by Huub van Helvoort, a list with first names of enslaved people on a number of plantations (70 kB), and even a list of letter forms, letter combinations and some Dutch words in nineteenth-century Dutch script (650 kB). It is good to see some basic historical skills are not forgotten! However, to my disbelief I did not find on the project website the URL of the index, not even after a few days… The slogan Open the slavery registers seems to have been at least temporarily forgotten by the web team. More down to earth, the current summer heat in my country, the gulf of enthusiasm about the launch, and the very end of the academic year created perfect excuses for forgetting to open literally the doors to the final results of the project also at the project website. The absence of news items from June and July 2018 is another indication for the sleeping state of the project website.

Such omissions and minor problems can be fixed quickly. I would urge anyone involved with this project to proceed as soon as possible with distributing lacking information to both versions and completing the translations. This succesful project well deserves this last effort to remove the barriers and chains which hindered easy access and practical use. The slavery registers of Suriname deserve interest from many corners.

A postscript

The uniqueness of these slave registers should be considered in the light of the presence of similar registers held at the Nationaal Archief Curaçao (finding aid 005, Archief Koloniale Overheid, nos. 1-1070).

Deciphering texts and Dutch legal history

Historians sometimes dream just as much as anyone else of immediate and intimate contact with the past. Museums nowadays create exhibitions and permanent rooms where often the experience of artefacts and objects is as important as the objects themselves. Historical documents can work as a time capsule, in particular when you have letters or diaries in front of you. Within several projects around the Prize Papers of the High Court of Admiralty held at the National Archives, Kew, letters take pride of place. Digitization projects have helped to approach them more directly than ever before. However, scholars sometimes sigh in front of historic Dutch handwriting. Is there any help in English for those wanting to decipher and study Dutch materials from the medieval or Early Modern period? In this post I would like to look at a number of online tutorials and guides, in order to compare their qualities, and to address also some of the difficulties you encounter. Two online projects prompted me to look here at Dutch palaeography and to search for online assistance in English.

The challenge of Dutch handwriting

A number of posts at my blog deal with old Dutch documents. I have looked here both at the Dutch letters surviving the centuries within the Prize Papers, and at projects dealing with other series within the archive of the High Court of Admiralty. In 2017 I looked at the 1623 Amboyna conspiracy trial with several archival records in Dutch with transcriptions and translations into English. Faithful readers might remember my summer posting about the colonial records of New Netherland in New York. Part of the success to edit and digitized these records was the labor of several archivists and historians to transcribe these records. Some of these transcriptions proved to be crucial when a fire in 1911 hit the building of the State Library of New York destroying a substantial number of these Early Modern archival materials.

In 2017 the department of Dutch Studies at Berkeley finished a project to publish transcribed Dutch colonial records in the Sluiter Collection of the Bancroft Library. Engel Sluiter donated his transcriptions made in Europe of Dutch archival records in 1996 to this library. You can download a PDF (3 MB) with a list of these materials prepared by Julie van der Horst. Seven boxes contain materials dealing with the New Netherland implantation. In this case the typed transcriptions were OCR-ed and checked by Julie van der Horst who is fluent in Dutch. Knowledge of Dutch was in this case more important than palaeographical skills.

The only tutorial for Dutch palaeography in English will be launched soon at the Script Tutorial of the Brigham Young University. It will appear in an English and Dutch version. The second project shows not only original documents in Dutch, but also transcriptions and for a number of them English translations. The transcriptions of a key document are shown line for line below snippets of the original record, thus approaching the qualities of a palaeographical tutorial. In fact I encountered the website because of the main resource, the journal of Hendrick Hamel (1630-1692). Hamel sailed in 1653 with the Dutch vessel De Sperwer from Batavia (Djakarta) on Java with the Dutch settlement at Deshima in Japan as final destination, but he ended in Korea after a shipwreck. He was arrested and lived for thirteen years as a prisoner in Korea. In 1666 he could escape with seven shipmates to Japan. Back in Java he wrote his report, which was first published in 1668 and quickly translated.

Hamel’s report is not a ship journal kept by the captain. For two centuries it was almost the only European eyewitness account of Korea. The contemporary translations contained numerous mistakes which were taken over at face value, without much inclination to go back to the original texts. Henny Savenije, a Dutchman living in South Korea, wrote with Jet Quadekker a book about Hendrick Hamel with a new edition of the Dutch text, Het journaal van Hendrick Hamel : de verbazingwekkende lotgevallen van Hendrick Hamel en andere schipbreukelingen van het VOC-schip de Sperwer in Korea (1653-1666) (Rotterdam 2003). On his website he presents a set of materials surrounding Hamel’s journal, with images of archival records, transcriptions in Dutch and English translations. For clarity’s sake you can find here an English translation of Hamel’s report about Korea which is actually quite brief.

Hamel's journal in the 1920 edition

Hamel’s journal in the 1920 edition by B. Hoetink – image The Memory of The Netherlands

I would like to focus here on the archival records at Savenije’s website and their treatment. The presentation, transcriptions and translation of Hamel’s report are the core of this website. The report is mainly written in a very fluent hand using a large script taking 51 pages of a register, referred to as “Nationaal Archief, nr. 1265”. If you look at the line-by-line transcription – here fol. 1155r – you can see for yourself the accessibility of this script. However fluent its look-and-feel, it nevertheless poses a challenge when you are used to English handwriting. In the modern edition of the Dutch text by B. Hoetink an image of the first page of the journal is included [Verhaal van het vergaan van het jacht De Sperwer (…) (The Hague 1920; Werken uitgegeven door de Linschoten-Vereeniging, 16)]. Hoetink’s edition is available online at The Memory of The Netherlands and in the Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren (text-only).

Title page of Hamel's journal, Rotterdam 1668

Title page of Hamel’s report in the edition Rotterdam 1668 – copy Oxford University

I had intended to go quickly to the other Dutch records at Savenije’s website, but unfortunately navigating this site is not straightforward. It took me some time to retrace the page with images. The central page where you can choose other records is presented as an appendix (bijlagen) in spite of its central function. However, you must applaud the presence of both English and Dutch versions, but you become acutely aware of the difference between using the original or depending on translations with all their qualities or deficiencies. Savenije gives a list of seventeenth century Dutch editions and translations, and also modern editions. It is strange he does not recognize the Linschoten Vereeniging as the Dutch pendant to the Hakluyt Society, both societies which promote modern editions of Early Modern travel accounts.

A second matter which deserves attention is the incomplete reference to the source. The Dutch National Archives at The Hague are home to 100 kilometer of archival records. For the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), you can use finding aid 1.04.02. No. 1265 is described as “1668 FFFF. Vierde boek: Batavia’s ingekomen brievenboek, deel II 1668”, a register of incoming letters at Batavia for 1668. Alas there are no digital scans of this register. You will recognize the need for a proper reference when you see the wealth of archival collections worldwide in the overview of relevant collections for the VOC at the TANAP portal. If you search for Sperwer in the TANAP database of VOC records you will get three results. Two of them refer to the register no. 1265, entered both for 1653 and 1666, as “Journael gericht aenden Ed. heer gouverneur generael Joan Maetsuijcker en d’Ed. heeren raaden van Nederlants India vant geene de overgebleven officieren ende matroosen vant jacht de Sperwer ‘t zedert 16 Augustij anno 1653 dat tselve jacht aan ‘t Quelpaerts Eijland hebben verlooren tot den 14 September anno 1666 dat met haer 8 ontvlught ende tot Nangasackij in Japan aangecomen zijn; int selve rijck van Coree is wedervaren mitsgaders den ommeganck van die natie ende gelegentheijt van ‘t land”, a report written for governor Joan Maetsuijcker and the council of the Dutch Indies by the remaining officers and men of the yacht Sperwer, how they were shipwrecked and escaped to Japan, and their notes on the kingdom of Korea, to be found on the pages – in fact folia! – 1155-1179. You can guess I would like to have precise references for any document for which Savenije has created a page with the Dutch text and an English translation, for example a notice from 1666 in the daily register of the Dutch settlement Deshima, an island in the harbor of Nagasaki. During two centuries it was virtually the only point of direct contact between Japan and Europe. Incidentally Savenije’s large pictures of the 1668 register are not sharp enough to be usable, but luckily those smaller selections you will see with the transcription are most readable.

The thing to note here for legal historians is the way Hamel was treated in Korea, his position with the Dutch in Deshima, and the procedures of his superiors who interrogated him about his adventures and prolonged absence. In the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands you search for the various editions until 1800 of Hamel’s report in the Dutch version.

Other roads to quick insight

By now you might conclude I am all in favor of good tutorials with proper references, transcriptions and translations, and I will mention some of them later on. I feel even tempted to ponder creating a tutorial myself, but I had better send you first to two portals with a lot of Early Modern documents in Dutch and a substantial presence of legal documents. Surprisingly art history comes here to help my needs.

Header Remdoc - KNAW/RU

At the portal Remdoc, a project fo the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, you can consult many documents about or related to Rembrandt van Rijn. It is the companion to The Rembrandt Database with information about his paintings, drawings and etchings. At Remdoc you can easily choose among 100 court records, 182 municipal records and 316 notarial acts. You can filter for holding institutions and even for the kind of document you would like to see. The Dutch terms are translated in English. Depositions, tax rolls, affidavits, fines, securities, inventories of insolvency, probate inventories, marriage announcements, two pleadings, due bills, you name it and you can get them. In many cases you will find images of the documents.

Document of a loan, 1653

Obligation to Rembrandt, 1653 – Amsterdam, Stadsarchief, Notarieel Archief, no. 1029B, p. 913 – image Remdoc and Stadsarchief Amsterdam

I picked a document for a loan Rembrandt got from Christoffel Thijsz. in 1649 to buy a house. It is the small inserted document at the right. The Remdoc project gives you a zoomable image, exact references about the source and relevant literature, a transcription of the seventeenth-century Dutch and a translation in English. This document tells you Rembrandt had failed to repay this loan for the purchase of his house, the very Rembrandthuis in de Sint-Anthoniebreesteeg – now the Jodenbreestraat – worth 7000 guilders in 1649, and that Christoffel Thijsz. claimed this sum with three years interest and additional costs, a total of 8470 guilders. The comments on the page of the portal explain the context of this document.

The due bill, 1653

Sometimes there is no other road to a destination than going the long road, and in my view it is not a punishment to learn about Rembrandt, by all accounts no stranger to human failure. His greatness is the way he conveyed his insight into human nature with consummate artistry. In Rembrandt’s work you have the uncanny sensation of knowing intimately the people facing you. It makes his series of self portraits into a touching voyage through his life.

The city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and again the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, have created a similar project for Jeroen Bosch called BoschDoc. On the project website you can use either the Dutch, English or Spanish interface. Here, too, you will find a wide variety of sources and often images of original documents, but always at least a transcription, a translation, comments and further references. Art historians are familiar with the Montias database of 17th century art inventories of the Frick Collection in New York, but the Montias database does not include images of archival records. Dutch probate inventories have been transcribed for a database of the Meertens Instituut for Dutch ethnology, Amsterdam. The website of Joseph Byrne (Belmont University) will guide you to literature about ancient, medieval and Early Modern wills and probate inventories. I would almost forget the website of the Amboyna Conspiracy Trail where you can find a number of Dutch records, transcriptions and English translations side by side.

Learning by doing

In the current absence of an English online manual for Dutch palaeography it is sensible to search for a collection with online images of documents, transcriptions and translations in order to guide your first steps in a language that might sound strange to you and certainly differs from modern Dutch, and in a script that might look baffling. If I had to deal with similar documents from another country I would perhaps also start searching for a project presenting documents around a famous person. For example a search for Early Modern letters at Early Modern Letters Online (Bodleian Libraries, Oxford) would certainly bring you to a helpful project. Such documents offer a great training ground. In my view the only way to maintain your skills in deciphering old scripts is by regular exercise, but you will need initial training. At many universities and archives you can join groups to acquire palaeographical skills. Online tutorials can surely help you to overcome unnecessary fear, but they can also make you aware of real difficulties.

Since a year I have been collecting online resources for palaeography at a new page of my legal history portal Rechtshistorie. Until now I have found ten tutorials for Dutch palaeography. Since 2016 three archives in North Brabant and the Utrecht archives offer at Wat Staat Daer [“What’s That?”] a tutorial, and at an online forum people can upload images with their questions. In a few cases people from Canada came with Dutch documents they considered illegible or in other respects too difficult for them.

Banner Haagse Handschriften

The only tutorial from Belgium, Iter-digitalicum from Leuven, scores points with a poster in English with core information, something missing elsewhere. Apart from many texts in Dutch you can view in the gallery with nearly 700 manuscripts also manuscripts written in Arabic, Armenian and Coptic, and for example humanist letters to and by François Cranevelt. It would mean writing another post if I would give here a full comparison of these tutorials, but not the least among them is Haagse handschriften [Manuscripts from The Hague], a website of the municipal archive, focusing on sixteenth-century criminal law, a register of criminal jurisdiction for the years 1575-1579 called Quaetclap [literally “Slander”] (HGA, Oud Rechterlijk Archief, no. 1) with facing images of the register and transcriptions. The other strength of this tutorial is the rich section with references for general documentation, covering not only other auxiliary sciences, but also for example guidelines for transcriptions and editions and legal dictionaries, often with links to digitized versions. Information for both last subjects you cannot easily find together online elsewhere. The tutorial offers a similar reference page on the history of The Hague.

Surmounting supposed and real difficulties is sometimes a personal matter. Often it is motivating to delve into a subject that seems at the surface difficult. Once your interest in a particular thing is kindled, you will start to enjoy finding out more about it, and thus familiarizing yourself will not feel heavy or boring. As a historian I personally like to visualize behind documents real people and their lives. Medieval farmers did not plough through registers, someone famously said! Reading the original documents about early New York, Rembrandt or Bosch should make you happy and curious about people. Being able to read old scripts will also set you free from complete reliance on transcriptions and translations. Guidance and commentaries can be helpful and even necessary to some extent, but in the end you are studying the past and its traces, and you will learn how to interpret and use sources yourself in a reliable way.

A postscript

From December 7, 2018 untill April 7, 2019 the municipal archives in Amsterdam will present the exhibit Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately]. The exhibit will show the use of augmented reality for studying archival records. Some documents damaged by a fire in 1762 have now been digitized. At the educational resource Geschiedenislokaal Amsterdam [History Class Amsterdam] you can find a number of digitized documents concerning Rembrandt from the rich holdings of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

A personal touch: Chasing autograph manuscripts of medieval lawyers

The Middle Ages span a millennium, and the very term has long darkened our understanding of this period in European history. Somehow the image of the Dark Age keeps to some extent its force for children, the general public and scholars alike. Seemingly out of the dark come the persons whose names we know, and romantic phantasy has often been very active to make them as colourful as possible. Clovis, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror and Saint Louis, the holy French king pronouncing the law, are among the people for whom we can find out more than only battles, deeds and orders, but we hear seldom the voice of more ordinary people. Thus the counsels of Dhuoda to her son, the visions and songs of abbess and composer Hildegard von Bingen, and Christine de Pisan, a passionate writer and defender of women, stand out even stronger, because they shed light on the history of women, too. In the field of medieval art there has been a hunt to find traces of individual artists. Some works of art still bear their names, but others remain anonymous.

Cover Autographa I.2

Medieval law, too, can seem not only a very masculine, but also a very impersonal affair. However, juridical glosses from the twelfth century in the manuscripts with the main texts of Roman and canon law are sometimes signed with an abbreviated form of the names of lawyers such as Azo, Jacobus Bassianus, Rogerius and Pillius. In the last decades another hunt has brought some astonishing results. Scholars have been able to identify autograph manuscripts of a surprising number of medieval lawyers. Individual scholars succeeded in connecting one or more manuscripts directly to the author of a particular juridical text. Surprisingly this is indeed possible for medieval lawyers, for many scholars not the group in medieval society you would immediately pinpoint.

On February 8, 2017 the second volume of a series of studies about medieval autograph manuscripts will be presented at the École française de Rome. This post is a small tribute to the scholars contributing to these volumes, and especially to Giovanna Murano, the courageous editor who has set an example herself in approaching legal manuscripts with new questions and sharing her wisdom and results with others. The blog Storia del Diritto medievale e moderno alerted me to the presentation of the new volume, and apart from translating the main information of their message in French I will try to provide some context for this important publication.

The hands of the masters

During the thirteenth century a system for the reproduction of medieval texts used at universities came into existence. Book shops were given controlled master copies, exemplars of these texts. Students could hire quire after quire for scribes to make copies. The pecia system – literally “piece” – was first described for theological manuscripts by Jean Destrez. Last year Frank Soetermeer died, the Dutch scholar who did research about the use of the pecia system for legal texts in Italy and France. Giovanna Murano, too published a book about the pecia system, Opere diffuse per exemplar e pecia (Turnhout 2005). Since a few decades it becomes clear that the chances for survival of original author manuscripts were relatively high. In the sixteenth century, however, printers often discarded the very manuscript(s) they had used to produce printed versions of texts.

Recognizing the handwriting of a specific author can be easy, but first you have to connect an inimitable script with him or her. The almost illegible script of Thomas Aquinas (circa 1225-1274) got nicknamed littera inintelligibilis by his contemporaries, and the mirror writing of Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century is rightly famous. Medieval lawyers signed in particular charters, acts written on parchment, or added some confirming lines in their own hand to consilia, legal consultations. The cover of the new volume shows a consilium with some of such closing lines and signatures. The interest in these consilia has helped very much to make the identification of the handwriting of medieval lawyers possible.

Perhaps the single most important step was the identification of a set of autograph manuscripts in the Vatican Library written by or produced under the direction of Baldo degli Ubaldi (1327-1400), first signalled by Giancarlo Vallone, ‘La raccolta Barberini dei “consilia” originali di Baldo’, Rivista di Storia del Diritto Italiano 62 (1989) 75-135. You can read online (PDF, 9 MB) an article by Vincenzo Colli, ‘Collezioni d’autore di Baldo degli Ubaldi nel MS Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Barb. lat. 1398’, Ius Commune 25 (1998) 323-346. Twenty years ago Colli identified more autographs and other manuscripts close to their author for other medieval lawyers as well, for example for Guillelmus Duranti (around 1237-1296), the author of the Speculum iudiciale, a massive legal encyclopaedia, ‘L’apografo dello Speculum iudiciale di Guillaume Durand’, Ius Commune 23 (1996) 271-280 (online, PDF, 3 MB), and together with Giovanna Murano ‘Un codice d’autore con autografi di Giovanni d’Andrea (ms. Cesena, Biblioteca Malatestiana, S.II. 3)’, Ius Commune 24 (1997) 1-23 (online, PDF, 9 MB).

In the second volume of the series on medieval autograph manuscripts [Autographa I.2: Giuristi, giudici e notai (sec. XII-XV)Giovanna Murano (ed.) (Imola 2016)] you will find some eighty images of medieval manuscripts, and very often you will see a medieval consilium and a manuscript of a particular work as evidence for the identification of an author’s hand. Apart from lawyers who published legal works the team looks also at medieval judges (giudici) and notaries (notai). For the second volume twelve scholars have identified 49 authors and consulted more than one thousand manuscripts in more than two hundred libraries. The new volumes contains eighty photographs.

Giovanna Murano contributed an article about the autograph of Antonio de Roselli’s Monarchia for the second volume of the Festschrift for Mario Ascheri, Honos alit artes. Studi per il settantesimo compleanno di Mario AscheriPaola Maffei and Gian Maria Varanini (eds.) (4 vol., 2014), a publication briefly mentioned here, too, available in print and online. In the first volume a whole section is dedicated to articles concerning medieval legal consilia. Murano provides a must-read on this genre with her article ‘I consilia giuridici dalla tradizione manoscritta alla stampa’, Reti medievali. Rivista 15/1 (2014) 1-37. She offers an uptodate illustrated introduction to this medieval genre. It gives you an example of her rigorous thinking and dense argumentation. At every turn Murano makes you think and reconsider matters you had not thought about for a long time or simply not carefully enough. In a similar article she gives a status questionum for the study of the Decretum Gratiani, the great treatise for medieval canon law from the early twelfth century [‘Graziano e il Decretum nel secolo XII’, Rivista Internazionale di Diritto Comune 26 (2015) 61-139; online].

The first volume of the series Autographa appeared in 2012. In my view both volumes can serve also as a palaeographical atlas for anyone studying the learned law, i.e. the medieval – and Early Modern – use of Roman and canon law. Instead of hunting digitized manuscripts on your computer screen or tablet you might want to sit down and study the variety of handwriting offered by Murano and her international team. The books can be used indeed as a fine guide to medieval legal manuscripts. However, maybe it is simple the urge to come as closely as possible to the hands of the great magistri of Italian and French medieval universities that makes you want to have these books within your reach. The names of medieval lawyers change here from glorious but inevitable dead names into living persons, not just as law professors producing a theoretical frameworks for judges, advisors and officials all over Europe, but at work themselves, counseling parties or pronouncing judgment on cases which show law in action. These manuscripts and archival records offer a splendid window to medieval life and society. My warmest congratulations to Giovanna Murano and the scholars participating in this great project! It deserves your attention by all means.

From rules to cases in medieval canon law: A tribute to Charles Donahue

Banner Cause Papers - Histiry Online and Borthwick InstituteWhen you would ask me to single out any legal historian for his or her versatility, path-breaking articles and books, stimulating teaching and generous help I would answer that choosing anyone would mean that I seriously underestimate the qualities of a lot of other fine scholars. On November 29 Harvard Law Today published an article about the honours lately bestowed upon Charles Donahue. In October a conference was held to celebrate his efforts in the field of legal history, both for the history of the common law and medieval canon law. This last field offered me the original impulse to start my blog, and therefore it is fitting to create space for a truly great scholar.

John Witte, Sara McDougall and Anna di Robilante edited a Festschrift called Texts and Contexts in Legal History: Essays in Honor of Charles Donahue (Berkeley, CA, 2016). Remarkably this volume does not yet figure on the website of the publishing institution, the Robbins Collection at Berkeley’s School of Law. Its website might be in the midst of a substantial makeover, including the launch of a new website for the manuscript catalogue, but this surely is an omission, yet another reason to get into action here. In this post I will focus mainly on Donahue’s work for the history of canon law, but you will not mind reading some remarks about other periods and themes which received and receive his attention. A third reason for writing this post is the opportunity to look at two most interesting projects for digitizing archival records which form a wonderful window to the practice of medieval canon law.

Taking the plunge

Photo of Charkes Donanhue - source: Harvard Law SchoolMy most vivid memory of Charles Donahue is the way he presented a paper at the International Congress of Medieval Canon Law in 1996 at Syracuse, NY. He commented on the needs to combine the qualities of research into legal doctrine, ecclesiastical institutions and social history. The three of them benefit immensely by being studied together, not in isolation. Of course this is a huge challenge, but Donahue memorably ended saying: “Let’s get out here and do it!” He did indeed exactly what he announced. One of the challenges is having the courage and stamina to work at all in a field like the history of medieval canon law which is both utterly fascinating and bewildering in its complexity. Critical text editions are still scarce, and you might be the first scholar since decades to look at particular manuscripts, or literally the first in centuries to study archival records.

Cover Charles Donahue "Law Marriage and Society in the Later Middle Ages - source Cambridge UP

In order to assess the possibilities to use archival records from medieval church courts Donahue set out to create a survey of these records with reports by a team of scholars from all over the world, The Records of the Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts: Reports of the Working Group on Church Courts Records (2 vol., Berlin 1989-1994). Earlier on he published with Norma Adams Select Cases from the Ecclesiastical Courts of the Province of Canterbury, c. 1200–1301 (London 1981; Selden Society Publications, 95). A recurring theme in a number of his publications is medieval marriage. In 2008 Donahue’s great study Law, Marriage, and Society in the Later Middle Ages: Arguments about Marriage in Five Courts appeared. Cambridge University Press provides online access to some 300 additional pages with notes and texts. The five courts in this work are York, Ely, Paris, Cambrai and Brussels. At his Harvard homepage you can download Excel sheets from the databases with the materials from these courts. Sharing these data with other scholars is wonderful when you realize how much work it takes over many years to prepare these materials before you can execute the kind of study Donahue did.

Projects at York

For one of the dioceses Donahue studied in his great book about medieval marriage, law and society you can now access documents online. Surprisingly there are even two connected projects which bring you to ecclesiastical justice in the medieval archdiocese of York. The first project to come online was The Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York, 1300-1858, the fruit of cooperation between the University of York, in particular the Borthwick Institute for Archives, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, History Online and JISC. The Borthwick Institute provides you with background information about the digitized records. It is also instructive to read entries at the project blog which ended in 2011 with the launch of the database. The Cause Papers can also be searched online at the portal Connected Histories. It is a bit weird to see at this portal the label Local records applied to both the Cause Papers and the Proceedings of the Old Bailey. It is precisely a strength that they are also important sources for local history, but they can bring those investigating them much more.

The core of the project for the York Cause Papers (CP) is the database which allow you to search more than 15,000 cases from many perspectives. For a number of cause papers images are provided, but I cannot determine the algorithm or human reasons behind the selection. Looking for cases after 1500 can bring you to images of the records involved. Earlier on the Borthwick Instituted had published guides to the cause papers, W.J. Sheils, Ecclesiastical Cause Papers at York: files transmitted on appeal 1500-1883 (Borthwick Texts & Calendars 9, 1983), D.M. Smith, Ecclesiastical Cause Papers at York: the Court of York 1301-1399 (Borthwick Texts & Calendars 14, 1988), and D.M. Smith, The Court of York 1400-1499: a handlist of the cause papers and an index to the archiepiscopal court books (Borthwick Texts & Calendars 29, 2003). At the website of the Borthwick Institute is also a very useful guide to records from other courts at Carlisle, Chester, Durham, Sodor, the diocese of the Hebrides, and Man, all of them, however, for the period after 1500. The database of the Cause Papers brings you to summarized information about the cases dealt with in these records. If you want to look in it for matrimonial cases you will see at least 1,600 cases from four centuries. A search with the keyword matrimonial brought me 241 results between 1300 and 1500. Donahue prepares for the Selden Society the volume Select cases from the ecclesiastical courts of York, 1300-1500 which will contain some 400 cases from the Cause Papers.

Logo York Archbishops'Registers RevealedThe medieval records themselves are at the center of a second project at York, York Archbishops’ Registers Revealed, The digitized registers cover the period 1225 to 1646. The contents here are much wider than only legal cases, but they, too, appear. As one of the showcases in the background information you can look at documents concerning the divorce of king Henry VIII from Anne of Cleves in 1540 (Abp Reg 28, f. 142r). For this project 32 registers have been digitized (Abp Reg) and also five Institution act books (Abp Inst AB) from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. You can browse a particular register and browse for people, religious institutions and groups. locations and subjects, or use the free text search field. A simple search for marriage yielded some 300 results. Supplementary indexes exist already for three registers. These indexes are rather important. When you look under A for Anne of Cleves she is absent in the database because in the standard view only input from indexed registers is shown. You cannot reach directly for records for people not included in these indexes. It is evident that the case from 1540 was found using earlier indexes, and primarily the historical overview of matters at the beginning of a register. The need for indexing some forty registers with 21,000 digitized images is clear and just as important as compliance with IIIF, the initiative for interoperability between images from various sources, rightly advocated in this project. Having the digitized images in front of you on your screen is great, but some of the classic activities of the historian’s craft are still indispensable, if only for deciphering the texts. Maybe I can seduce you to have a look at ‘Under a magnifying glass’, a recent post on my second blog Glossae concerning juridical glosses from the twelfth century, where I compare a number of online tutorials for medieval palaeography. By the way, the Borthwick Institute has also started digitizing seventeenth-century visitation records from York.


For yet another diocese in medieval England, London, you can consult at home records thanks to the Consistory database created by Shannon McSheffrey (Concordia University, Montreal) using registers covering the periods 1467-1476 and 1487-1496. The database contains transcriptions and translations of documents for this last period. McSheffrey helpfully provides a generous bibliography of modern scholarship about late medieval civil and ecclesiastical courts in England. McSheffrey provides introductions to major themes in the cases from London, such as defamation, marriage and divorce, tithes, testaments, clerical behaviour, and matters as debt and perjury. You can approach the cases directly or look for specific subjects, people, locations, and also for depositions. The variety in possible approaches to these records is not new for those already familiar with medieval canon law, but surely this range of subjects covered by ecclesiastical law should make more people curious about canon law.

Among the supporting institutions of the Canadian Consistory project is the Ames Foundation, since many years led at Harvard by Charles Donahue. One of the online resources of the Ames Foundation are the page proofs of The Register of the Official of the Bishop of Ely: 21 March 1374 – 28 February 1382 edited by Marcia Stentz and Charles Donahue. I had used the word opus magnum for Donahue’s book on the comparative history of medieval marriage courts, but this edition deserves this description, too. Marcia Stentz’ calendar of the Ely register formed the starting point for a full critical edition. As an asset the Ames Foundation has also put online digital images of this register [Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, Ely Diocesan Records, EDR D2/1]. Establishing a correct numbering of all pages in this register is just one of the myriad things needed to pursue the long road to the final edition. At the first folio the Ely register has the heading Registrum primum causarum consistorii episcopi Eliensis (..), but this register does not contain solely cases heard in an ecclesiastical court. Other tasks and actions of an officialis, the episcopal judge, come into view, too.

I leave it to my readers to see for themselves the recent additions concerning medieval canon law among the online publications of the Ames Foundation, a remarkable feature of a society promoting the history of English law! You will also spot Charles Donahue’s name for his support for the online edition of Appeals to the Privy Council from the American Colonies: An Annotated Digital Catalogue, edited by Sharon O’Connor and Mary Bilder, but his work for the Ames Foundation reaches beyond specific editions.

Editions in the digital age

When reading this contribution you will notice with me a great variety in editorial approaches for online editions or presentations of late medieval church court records. The Cause Papers of York are accessible in a database, but you will find for cases before 1500 only detailed summaries of cases. The range over the centuries is great. I would view it as a search tool. York Archbishops’ Registers Revealed does give you access to digitized images, but the online indexation of the records has not yet been completed. Here you will need medieval and Early Modern palaeography, and you have documents from an even longer time span. The Consistory database for diocesan records from London offers you detailed access to transcriptions and even translations, but for just one decade. Here you can quickly focus on the cases. The edition of the Ely register is certainly both a classic edition enhanced with images, and in a way it is in a class of its own. The context of an ecclesiastical judge during eight years is here right in front of you. Depending on your personal interest as a scholar or teacher you will sometimes prefer a full edition, to provide either students with a quick road to a first encounter with a source, or inversely make the importance of auxiliary sciences clear by showing images of historical records. Each approach is to some extent perfectly valid and valuable. Space forbids me to discuss here the editions by Monique Vleeschouwers-Van Melkebeek for Cambrai and Brussels of records of the officialis, let alone her work on Tournai with probably the earliest surviving records from the late twelfth century. Donahue does use these sources, too.

At the end of this contribution I am sure that Charles Donahue would very much want to make this extensive comparison of editions in print and online. Of course I could only point to some aspects of Donahue’s work. It makes me eager to look at his work in more depth! Studying medieval law is one of the means to discover the great differences of law and society in place and time during a millennium. It teaches you to be wary about rapid generalizations and labels. I confess to be charmed and sometimes very much moved by the records of medieval courts and the way they can be made tell-tale witnesses of society at large, of life in all its dimensions, of people trying to lead their lives. Somehow human interest is the greatest when you see people facing the machineries of the law, be they cunning plaintiffs, helpless defendants, shrewd or wise lawyers. In its best incarnations as in the work of Charles Donahue studying and writing about medieval canon law is both part of legal history and the humanities.

A postscript

Please forget my grumblings about the manuscripts catalogue of the Robbins Collections! In 2018 the new searchable database version was launched. It can now readily respond to many inquiries.

Mapping Australia, an encounter between art and maps

Start of the exhibition In my latest post the importance of maps for combining both classical and digital approaches for historical research got some attention. It is not a coincidence that I would like to follow this trail by looking at a number of examples, but I had not expected that an exhibition in Utrecht would become the focus point. The Dutch king opened on October 3, 2016 the exhibition Mapping Australia. Country to Cartography (AAMU, Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht). Old maps and modern visions of maps created by Australian artists with aboriginal ancestors are presented here together. The exhibition is a part of the commemoration of 400 years Dutch discovery of Australia in the so-called Dirk Hartog Year, named after the Dutch schipper who in 1616 involuntarily sailed to the west coast of Australia. It offers a good opportunity to look at the digital presence of relevant maps showing Australia at the portal Old Maps Online and the recently redesigned portal Memory of The Netherlands. In 2010 I looked here briefly at this remarkable museum and its collection of law poles.

On the map

Late 17th century Dutch map of

Hollandia Nova – “Kaart van den Indischen Archipel, tusschen Sumatra en Nova Guinea (…)” – late 17th century – The Hague, Nationaal Archief, Kaartcollectie Buitenland Leupe, no. 344

The exhibition at Utrecht shows mainly but not exclusively Dutch maps of Australia. There are also more general maps of the southern hemisphere. The maps have been chosen from the holdings of Utrecht University Library and the Nationaal Archief, the Dutch National Archives in The Hague. Some 2,000 old maps held at Utrecht have been digitized and can be found online at Old Maps Online. The maps held at The Hague come from a special map collection created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Kaartcollectie Buitenland Leupe). The map to the right is one of the items on display at the AAMU and happens to feature prominently in a thematic dossier about Australia at the website of the Nationaal Archief. Among the digitized items of the Nationaal Archief is Abel Tasman’s journal from 1642 (NA, Aanwinsten Eerste Afdeling, no. 121). Tasman, made also drawings of the coastal areas he saw.

The 1616 tin dish commemorating the landing of Dirck Hartogh - Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, NG-NM-825

The 1616 tin dish commemorating the landing of Dirck Hartogh – Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, NG-NM-825

Perhaps the most stunning historic object comes from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The very fact it is held in their holdings struck me forcefully. You could argue that the Dirck Hartogh tin dish is not just an object of Dutch maritime history, but also a telling object in Australian history. Dirck Hartogh ordered the carving of his arrival on October 25, 1616 with the Eendraght on the west coast of Australia at the island which still bears his name, Dirk Hartogh Island. Willem de Vlamingh found this dish eighty years after the landing, replaced it with a copy, and brought the original dish back to Amsterdam. Thus the oldest object from Europe that ever touched Australian soil returned to its point of depart in Europe.

Old Maps Online has gained its importance as a quick way to find historical maps precisely because it brings together maps from different angles, countries and perspectives. In the case of Australia it matters enormously to have rapid access to these old Dutch maps because they contain details not presented on other maps, and thus they have influenced cartographers elsewhere very much. Any reader of Simon Garfield’s On the Map. Why the World Looks the Way it Does (London 2012) will be aware how not only the actual shape and contents of a map are important, but also the visions mapmakers create. The combination of rich collections from several countries, each bringing both maps printed nearby and in foreign countries, makes Old Maps Online into the rich and invaluable resource it has become.


The digital portal Memory of the Netherlands contains now 132 collections from 84 institutions. You can search for these collections and institutions, or choose a preset theme. The theme Maps and atlases yields nearly 19,500 results. However, this filter has been programmed to include also topographical drawings. You can adjust the filters to include only maps which brings you to some 1,400 maps. If I choose for marine charts (365 items) you cannot search immediately for a specific location. In its current look it is more practical to look for a location in general and subsequently narrow your search to maps or charts. The portal gives access to an impressive total of nearly 800,000 items. Depending on your search question, either a general question which you want to explore or a more restricted one, you will encounter many interesting items. It is still possible to view the famous topographical collections such as the Atlas Schoemaker directly. This double use of the word atlas should serve as a reminder that even though digital materials might have been digitized with a view to historical research the sources themselves were not made with this intention. For the purpose of this blog post you should perhaps begin with the digitized atlases from the holdings of the Nationaal Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam.

Mapping with a different mind-set

Artistic maps at the exhibition

Maps created by Judy Watson

The historical maps of Australia form a major part of the exhibition at Utrecht, yet the modern art works which either mirror old maps or reflect concepts of space and spatial representation attract rightfully your attention. In particular the work of Judy Watson invites you to rethink the role of maps, especially the names of locations. The Dutch and English deliberately gave their own names to Australian locations which of course had and have their own names given by the indigenous people of Australia.

Lawpoles at the AAMU, UtrechtApart from drawings and paintings there are also minor objects to be seen, such as beautifully carved shells, and some larger objects, a number of law poles. Interestingly, the law poles belong to the main collection of the AAMU. They are part of a series of contemporary art works which have helped setting the boundaries of land belonging to indigenous people. This theme was itself the focus point of an exhibition at the AAMU in 2010 about which I reported here briefly. I cannot help thinking now that these law poles are here very much museum objects instead of being elements of the present state of affairs in Australia regarding indigenous people. The past years a number of contemporary Australian art works has been shown around Australia in travelling exhibitions.

Place names of Australia - viedo installtion by Judy Watson

Any of my thoughts to be just looking at an art exhibition was dispelled when I spotted among the place names projected in a video installation by Judy Watson on a map of Australia Cape Grim and the Cape Grim Massacre. Watson’s point is not only recording such grim places as Cape Grim and Suicide Bay on Tasmania, but showing the sheer impact of a majority of English and Dutch names for Australian locations. The Dutch might not have occupied physically much Australian territory at any time, but giving locations a Dutch name was definitely done with to commerce and control. Van Diemen Land and Tasmania are not exceptional examples of lasting Dutch influence. I would like to mention here the online Companion to Tasmanian History, edited by Alison Alexander, Centre for Historical Studies, University of Tasmania, where you can pursue this approach and much more.

Reading the sources

Logo Wat Staat Daer

At the website of the Dirk Hartog Year you can find in the section Dirk’s Library information about his life and voyages for the Dutch East India Company, and not as you might expect books about him or even his personal library. I could not help inspecting the transcriptions of some of the historical records – including the tin dish from 1616 – and noticing gaps and misunderstandings. Instead of frowning upon this situation it is better to point to a brand new website about Early Modern Dutch palaeography, Wat Staat Daer? [What Is Stated There?]. Three archives in the province Noord-Brabant launched this website earlier this month. Even if it is not a tutorial it does give you not only a number of documents to decipher, but also a digitized version of a handy booklet by Willem Bogtman, Het Nederlandsche schrift in 1600 [Dutch Handwriting in 1600] (Amsterdam 1938; reprint 1973) showing you the variety of forms of letters in Dutch documents. Some users of Wat Staat Daer? point to an online tutorial for Early Modern Dutch palaeography of the University of Amsterdam. One user gives the link to a website for Dutch sixteenth-century palaeography using records of criminal justice at The Hague for a very short period, 1575 to 1579; in particular the reference section is very useful. Hopefully these websites help also all those investigating traces of Dutch history in locations from New York to Brazil and from South Africa to Sri Lanka and Indonesia or the global impact of the Dutch East India Company. The VOC Kenniscentrum and the Atlas of Mutual Heritage are among the virtual harbors where your research into the history of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie can start. The municipal archive in Amsterdam has a special page about Dirk Hartogh, with a discussion also of the various spellings of his name.

For those wondering why I do not mention here the Digital Panopticon, a project combining data from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online 1674-1913, the Convict Transport Registers Database and the First Fleet to create a history of English and Australian people over the centuries, I did so here in an earlier post about the Digital Panopticon. This project is not only a showcase for digital humanities, it showcases also legal history in fascinating ways.

Among the many activities of the Dirk Hartog Year some of them are clearly connected to the events of 1616, its immediate impact and historical influence. The Western Australia Museum created a small but interesting online exhibition, 1616 – Dirk Hartogh. At the website of the Duyfken 1606 Replica you can find more information about important Dutch voyages to Australia in the seventeenth century. This autumn the replica of the Duyfken is sailing along Australia’s west coast in remembrance of Dirk Hartog’s journey. The Nationaal Archief gives an overview of other Dutch activities concerning “1616” in 2016 and 2017. The Dutch National Archives have produced a glossy magazine with the flawed title Boemerang. Nederland-Australië 400 jaar, which you can download as a PDF. I feared it was only available in Dutch, but luckily the website of the Dirk Hartog Year contains a link to the English version. The choice of subjects in this colourful magazine is really not narrow-minded. It would be one-sided to leave out here the websites of the National Archives of Australia and the National Library of Australia, but enough is enough. For me writing this contribution has been in some way a voyage of discovery, although I have collected over the years a selection of links to websites touching Australia’s legal history on my legal history website. Hopefully I can seduce you to look out for uncharted territories, to rethink the importance of historical and linguistic borders, and to get inspiration from artists who raise difficult questions about our own time.

Mapping Australia: Country to CartographyAboriginal Art Museum, Utrecht – October 4, 2016 to January 15, 2017